Recognizing Geology’s Colonial History for Better Policy Today – Eos

Science News by AGU
At the University of Minnesota (UMN), we are reckoning with the story we tell about geology in our state. In the 19th century, the belief in manifest destiny drove white settlers to expand rapidly into the West, leading to the widespread removal of Indigenous Peoples from their homelands, genocide, and harm to their knowledge systems and lifeways. Geological mapping played a significant role in identifying which lands were profitable for U.S. settlement through gold and other natural resource extraction. The Minnesota Geologic and Natural History Survey was founded in 1872 and restarted in 1911 as the Minnesota Geological Survey (MGS) under UMN’s Newton Horace Winchell School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. The original purpose of the survey was to economically evaluate the “mineral kingdom” of Minnesota; today, the MGS mission is to identify and support stewardship of water, land, and mineral resources. The program was named for and first led by Newton Horace Winchell—a pioneering geologist discussed in most UMN geology courses. Winchell led mapping surveys, sometimes accompanied by the U.S. military, including George Armstrong Custer, into Indigenous land that directly led to mining explorations, white settlement, and, eventually, U.S. takeover of these lands through violence and coercion.
Geologists learn about Newton Horace Winchell’s discoveries stripped from the violence that followed or made them possible.
But geologists—including the ones serving at MGS today—learn about Winchell’s discoveries stripped from the violence that followed or made them possible. Although geologic mapping of the state contributed to advances in the stewardship of natural resources and public health, we must acknowledge the cost of these benefits. As two white geologists in the MGS and the UMN School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, we and our colleagues are making efforts to integrate lessons from our regional history into our policies that govern our relationships with Indigenous Peoples. Not only will this critical reflection acknowledge racist actions and the immense pain caused by them, but it also will allow the MGS to conduct ongoing work more justly, by collaborating with tribal neighbors to decide how and where MGS performs its mapping.
First, we must look back at our history, starting with the U.S. government–funded expeditions to map west of the Mississippi River in the early 19th century. These expeditions included naturalists who described the surrounding nature and geology in works credited today for advancing the knowledge of the geography of Minnesota. These surveys inspired settlers to move to Dakota and Ojibwe homelands in what the U.S. government began calling the territory of Minnesota on the basis of the Dakota name, Mni Sóta Maḳoce.
These surveys were not the first scientific understandings of these landscapes. Indigenous Peoples have always had their own knowledge systems and sciences of Earth [see Daniel, 2019; Evans, 2020; Cartier, 2019; Reano and Ridgeway, 2015]. To the Dakota and Ojibwe, some rocks and metals such as pipestone and copper hold deep spiritual importance and animacy. Indigenous place-names and maps also reveal a rich understanding of place [see Brooks, 2018; Smith, 2018]. Generations of European and American explorers relied extensively on Ojibwe and Dakota guides to navigate the waterways and landscapes of Minnesota.
In 1837, the U.S. government began promulgating a series of treaties that forced the Dakota and Ojibwe people to cede most of their land. One concession would lead directly to another. A geological report by David Dale Owen, published in 1852, mapped the mineral potential of land ceded in the 1851 Dakota Land Cession Treaties, as well as land still held by the Dakota and Ojibwe. Owen documented, for example, unceded tracts of bedrock along the north shore of Lake Superior in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota. This report likely aided mining companies in persuading the federal government to acquire the land—which they did 2 years later in 1854.
The federal government paid pennies on the dollar to the Dakota on the value appraisals gave the land at the time, turning it into wealth that the UMN continues to benefit from today.
Minnesota was granted statehood in 1858, and in 1865, the Minnesota legislature appointed Henry H. Eames as the first state geologist. Eames produced two annual reports that focused on the region north of Lake Superior, where he claimed to have found a major gold deposit. In the heady gold rush that followed, a “quasi-military organization” made up of former soldiers recently returned from the Civil War set up shop as the first gold mining company at Lake Vermilion. They settled in unceded lands where the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa resided. To avoid violence, the Bois Forte Band ceded their land surrounding the lake and were forced to accept a smaller reservation farther northwest. But the “second California,” as Eames boasted to potential financiers in New York, never materialized because Eames’s claims of gold turned out to be fraudulent. The damage was done, however, and geologic mapping and mining research around the lake turned to focus on the nearby massive iron ore deposits.
Indigenous land dispossession not only resulted from geological mapping; it actually funded some of the surveys. The Morrill Land-Grant Act handed over 145 square miles (375 square kilometers), 98% of it ceded Dakota territory, to the State of Minnesota, which later assigned the benefits of the act to the University of Minnesota in 1868. Additional lands were granted specifically to fund the Minnesota Geologic and Natural History Survey in 1873. The federal government paid pennies on the dollar to the Dakota on the value appraisals gave the land at the time, turning it into wealth that the UMN continues to benefit from today.
Winchell’s legacy is still discussed in modern textbooks and biographies published as recently as 2020. These works largely excuse or ignore the racism embedded in his views and the ethics of his science as being a consequence of a different time. Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and activist Leanne Simpson points out in her book As We Have Always Done, however, that this type of thinking normalizes the white, settler perspective and erases the perspective of Indigenous Peoples. She asks, “Whose historical context and whose standards” are we evaluating history based upon? Winchell’s legacy must also be evaluated in the historical context and standards of Indigenous Peoples.
Early in his career as survey director, Winchell and other scientists accompanied George Armstrong Custer in the 1874 Black Hills Expedition, an expedition that advanced the dispossession of Lakota homelands. Sioux scholar Nick Estes explains in his book Our History Is the Future that the Black Hills—He Sapa in the Lakota language—are “the heart of everything that is” to the Lakota people and sacred to more than 50 Indigenous nations. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie banned U.S. citizens from entering the Lakota reservation encompassing the Black Hills except for those employed and authorized by the U.S. government to do so. Custer’s military obtained this authorization by claiming the expedition was for reconnaissance, whereas the geologists, including Winchell, said they were looking for fossils. The expedition’s miners actually struck gold, and the rush of white settlement and U.S. land claims that followed were in clear violation of the treaty. Although Winchell himself may not have been seeking gold, he chose to participate in a military expedition on Lakota territory prominently connected with gold exploration and the drive for U.S. expansion. Yet the ethics of this research are not widely discussed, if at all, in the history of geology presented at UMN or in biographies.
Without this context, Winchell and his research appear unattached to the ongoing genocide and land dispossession of Indigenous Peoples as the U.S. expanded into the Midwest during the 19th century. Geology is not neutral within the politics of colonization, a point further developed and expanded in Kathryn Yusoff’s book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. How we tell the story of geology either contributes to the status quo of colonization or challenges these privileged narratives to open up the possibility for a more just future.
In 2019, we at the UMN School of Earth and Environmental Sciences were given an opportunity to better understand our science’s history when one of the Minnesota tribal nations asked for their lands to be excluded from a MGS geologic map in progress. They believed that publicly available geologic information could jeopardize protection of their lands and that the MGS would not inform the tribe of all the potential uses of data collected. At first this request bewildered MGS geologists, who were not properly taught our discipline’s history, but then spurred movement within the organization to learn about our region’s treaties and the relationship between tribal sovereignty and geologic mapping.
These rights mean that each tribal nation can and should make its own decision on what geologic information the MGS can collect and how geologic mapping might affect its people.
The MGS researchers learned that each tribal nation within the footprint of Minnesota and throughout the U.S. retains its sovereignty and, along with all Indigenous Peoples, has the right to self-determination. These rights mean that each tribal nation can and should make its own decision on what geologic information the MGS can collect and how geologic mapping might affect its people. With this knowledge, the MGS began to create its first policy for mapping and collecting data on tribal lands. We began by reaching out to the UMN senior director of American Indian Tribal Nation Relations, who advised the MGS to reach out to each tribe’s environmental resources program directors. In these meetings, MGS leadership shared its mission along with the mapping projects that would affect the tribe’s lands. Next, the tribal environmental resources directors asked their tribal government to vote on their involvement in the MGS project. Some tribes wanted updated geological maps from the MGS, whereas other tribes stated they already had the capacity to make their own maps and thus declined permission for the MGS to survey their land.
The new policy states that MGS will offer opportunities to tribes to consult on surveys and other operational activity that may affect their land, water, or other natural resources, even if that activity is not directly on their land. MGS now requires explicit permission from tribal governments to collect new data on tribal lands and will also, upon request, “gray out” tribal lands on geologic maps and related products. Although the MGS has customized its policies to honor specific requests made by the sovereign Indigenous nations in our region, we modeled them generally on policies of both the U.S. Geological Survey and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
As our experience demonstrates, geologists must understand how the many discoveries in our discipline were actually made; otherwise, our work will continue to further the colonization of Indigenous Peoples. We must learn the complete history of geology’s relationship with colonization, invite reflection from Indigenous Peoples, and require our scientific community to understand and respect tribal sovereignty through our policies. This work must extend to our geoscience classrooms as we train the next generation of Earth and environmental scientists, consultants, and regulators. Students, faculty, staff, and researchers within the MGS and the UMN School of Earth and Environmental Science have raised these demands, supported by national efforts calling for this work.
The academic department within the UMN School of Earth and Environmental Sciences is also beginning to take action. The department is in the process of recommending American Indian studies courses for undergraduates and graduate students on our website and in advising meetings. Faculty and students continue to assess whether collections contain specimens that were stolen from Indigenous Peoples and are developing repatriation procedures. Indigenous Earth scientists and scholars are being invited to speak at department geology seminars as well as lunchtime justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion talks. Students and faculty are reviewing and editing department curriculum to ensure that it respectfully includes Indigenous Peoples’ histories and the colonial legacy of geoscience and geoengineering in Minnesota. Faculty and students are working with Indigenous scholars to create a land and water acknowledgment and develop policies for our department to work more ethically on Indigenous homelands. These actions are only the first steps, and we have a lot left to learn on this journey.
We still have many questions to discuss together: What should the MGS do with historical maps, data, and projects published without tribal consent? How can the MGS redress harms and incorporate the perspectives and knowledges of Indigenous Peoples?
MGS geologists have embarked on composing a detailed report on their program’s past and ongoing colonial practices, which will be published on the MGS website. We also are continuing to refine our policies for geologic mapping on tribal lands. Building and maintaining respectful relationships with tribal governments will require time and accountability from the MGS, as another recent UMN-tribal collaboration has demonstrated. We still have many questions to discuss together: What should the MGS do with historical maps, data, and projects published without tribal consent? Can the MGS provide services to tribes in stewarding their land, mineral, and groundwater resources? How has the UMN geological research supported mining industries at the expense of Indigenous Peoples’ treaty rights, economic prosperity, self-determination, and access to sacred sites? How can the MGS redress harms and incorporate the perspectives and knowledges of Indigenous Peoples? Fundamentally, how can the MGS and the geological community develop and follow ethics that account for and disrupt this discipline’s entanglement in colonization?
Colonialism is ingrained within much of geology’s foundation. Geologic institutions must be forthright in recognizing the role scientists in our field have played—and continue to play—in the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from their lands around the world and, consequently, disrupting their lifeways and knowledge systems. We also have an opportunity to make the practice of our science more just, as well as deeper and more expansive, by critically understanding our past, stopping and redressing harms, and building respectful relationships with Indigenous Peoples for an equitable exchange of knowledges. Our work at MGS and at the UMN Earth and Environmental Sciences Department is far from done, but we look forward to reimagining our science and how it can support the well-being and self-determination of Indigenous Peoples.
This paper would not have been possible without the guidance, support, and feedback from Mike Dockry (UMN forestry professor), Margaret Watkins (Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa water quality specialist), Kari Hedin (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa watershed specialist), Tony Runkel (MGS lead geologist), Hannah Jo King (UMN natural resources, sciences, and management graduate student), Crystal Ng (UMN hydrology professor), Laura Paynter (UMN public policy graduate student), Erick Moore (head of UMN Archives), the UMN American Indian and Indigenous Studies writing workshop, the UMN Institute for Advanced Studies Land-Grant/Land-Grab Fellowship cohort, the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department Unlearning Racism in Geoscience (URGE) Pods, and the Kawe Gidaa-naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin project team.
Brooks, L. (2018), Awikhigawôgan ta Pildowi Ôjmowôgan: Mapping a new history, William Mary Q., 75(2), 259–294, https://doi.org/10.5309/willmaryquar.75.2.0259.
Cartier, K. M. S. (2019), Keeping Indigenous science knowledge out of a colonial mold, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO137505.
Daniel, R. (2019), Understanding our environment requires an Indigenous worldview, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO137482.
Evans, K. (2020), The river’s lizard tail: Braiding Indigenous Knowledges with geomorphology, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO148717.
Reano, D., and K. Ridgway (2015), Connecting geology and Native American culture on the reservation of Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, USA, GSA Today, 25, 26–28, https://doi.org/10.1130/GSAT-G235GW.1.
Smith, M. (2018), Learning from the Dakota: Water and place, Open Rivers Rethinking Water Place Commun., no. 11, editions.lib.umn.edu/openrivers/article/learning-from-the-dakota-water-and-place/.
Maddy Nyblade (nybla002@umn.edu), University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis; and Jenn McDonald, Minnesota Geological Survey, St. Paul
Nyblade, M., J. McDonald (2021), Recognizing geology’s colonial history for better policy today, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO162069. Published on 07 September 2021.
Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.
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